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Ur was an ancient city in southern Mesopotamia, originally located near the mouth of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers on the Persian Gulf and close to Eridu. Because of marine regression, the remains are now well inland in present-day Iraq, south of the Euphrates on its right bank at , and named Tell el-Mukayyar [1], near the city of Nasiriyah south of Baghdad.

The site is marked by the ruins of the ziggurat (left), which is still largely intact, and by the settlement mound. The ziggurat is a temple of Nanna and has two stages constructed from brick: in the lower stage the bricks are joined together with bitumen, in the upper stage they are joined with mortar.



Ur was inhabited in the earliest stage of village settlement in southern Mesopotamia, the Ubaid period. However it later appears to have been abandoned for a time. Scholars believe that, as the climate changed from relatively moist to drought in the early 3rd millenium BC, the small farming villages of the Ubaid culture consolidated into larger settlements out of the need for large-scale, centralized irrigation works to survive the dry spell. Ur became such a center, and by around 2600 BC, in the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period III, the city was again thriving. Ur by this time was considered sacred to Nanna, the moon god in Sumerian mythology.

The location of Ur was favourable for trade by sea and also by land routes into Arabia. Many elaborate tombs including that of Queen Puabi [2] were constructed. Eventually the kings of Ur became the effective rulers of Sumer, in the first dynasty of Ur, which was established by the king Mesannepada (or Mesanepada, Mes-Anni-Padda).

The first dynasty was ended by an attack by Sargon of Akkad around 2340 BC. Not much is known about the following second dynasty, during which the city was in eclipse.

The third dynasty was established when the king Ur-Nammu (or Urnammu) came to power, ruling between 2112 BC and 2094 BC. During his rule, temples, including the ziggurat, were built and agriculture was improved through irrigation. His code of laws (a fragment was identified in Istanbul in 1952) is one of the oldest such documents known, preceding the code of Hammurabi. After his death he became a hero-figure: one of the surviving works of Sumerian literature describes the death of Ur-Nammu and his journey to the underworld.

The third dynasty fell around 1950 BC to the Elamites; the Lament for Ur commemorates this event. Later Babylon captured the city. Nanna was known to the Babylonians as Sin. The Babylonian city of Harran was also sacred to the god Sin.

In the 6th century BC there was new building in Ur under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. The last Babylonian king, Nabonidus of Babylonia improved the ziggurat. However the city started to decline from around 550 BC and was no longer inhabited after about 500 BC, perhaps due to drought caused by changing river patterns and/or the silting of the outlet to the Persian Gulf.

Biblical Ur

Ur is mentioned four times in the Tanakh or Old Testament, as with the distinction "of the Kasdim/Kasdin", which is traditionally rendered in English "Ur of the Chaldees", referring to the Chaldeans, who settled there around 900 BC. The Kasidim could also refer to the Kassites who were present during the time during which the Exodus occurred. In Genesis xi. 28 and 31 and xv. 7, Ur is described as the birthplace of Abraham, the largest city of Shinar or northern Chaldea, and the principal commercial centre of the country as well as the centre of political power. In Nehemiah ix. 7, a single passage mentioning Ur is a paraphrase of Genesis..


In the mid-17th century, the site was visited by Pietro della Valle , who recorded the presence of ancient bricks stamped with strange symbols, cemented together with bitumen, as well as inscribed pieces of black marble that appeared to be seals.

The first excavation was made by British consul J.E. Taylor, who partly uncovered the ziggurat. Clay cylinders found in the four corners of the top stage of the ziggurat bore an inscription of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon (639 BC), closing with a prayer for his son Belshar-uzur (Bel-sarra-Uzur), the Belshazzar of the book of Daniel. Evidence was found of restoration by the ziggurat by Ishme-Dagan of Isin and Gimil-Sin of Ur, and of Kuri-galzu, a Kassite king of Babylon, of the 14th century BC. Nebuchadnezzar also claims to have rebuilt the temple. Taylor further excavated an interesting Babylonian building, not far from the temple, and part of an ancient Babylonian necropolis. All about the city he found abundant remains of burials of later periods. Apparently, in the later times, owing to its sanctity, Ur became a favourite place of sepulture, so that after it had ceased to be inhabited it still continued to be used as a necropolis.

After Taylor's time the site was visited by numerous travellers, almost all of whom have found ancient Babylonian remains, inscribed stones and the like, lying upon the surface. The site was considered rich in remains, and relatively easy to explore.

Excavations from 1922 to 1934 were funded by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania and led by the archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley. A total of about 1850 burials were uncovered, including 16 that were described as "royal tombs" containing many valuable artifacts. Most of the royal tombs were dated to about 2600 BC. The finds included the unlooted tomb of Queen Puabi [2] – her name is known from a cylinder seal found in the tomb. Many other people had been buried with her, in a form of human sacrifice. Near the ziggurat were uncovered the temple E-nun-mah and buildings E-dub-lal-mah (built for a king), E-gi-par (residence of the high priestess) and E-hur-sag (a temple building). Outside the temple area many houses used in everyday life were found. Excavations were also made below the royal tombs layer: a 3.5m thick layer of alluvial clay covered the remains of earlier habitation, including pottery from the Ubaid period, the first stage of settlement in southern Mesopotamia. Woolley later wrote many articles and books about the discoveries.

Most of the treasures excavated at Ur are in the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Archaelogical names of periods of habitation include:

January 2004

Some of the areas that were cleared during excavations are sanded over again.

The site is set up for tourism. Electricity is at the site and several lines of poles go though the site area. There are 25 meter high steel poles near the Great Ziggurat that seem to be intended for lighting of the site, however there are not actual lamps on them. Tourist information signs are also found at the site in Arabic. There are resting shaded places available for tourists.

Since the Iraqi war, western tourists have been coming here again. The road up to the site is covered with little shops, selling everything from Saddam Hussein money bills to genuine rugs.

One can visited the whole site, view any grave or climb any peak without restrictions. The huge US / Coalition forces Tallil Air Base , located nearby, is rumoured to watch the site. There are regular flights of helicopters over the site from the air base.

The Great Ziggurat is fully cleared and stands as the best-preserved and only major structure on the site. One can walk around it, and will observe very little damage. Only the top is cover with debris and is at times a confusing mix of loose stones, broken pottery and partial reconstruction.

The famous Royal tombs, also called the Neo-Sumerian Mausolea, located about 250m south-east of the Great Ziggurat, in the corner of the wall that surrounds the city a wall one can scarcely imagine today unless one knows it is there, is nearly totally cleared.

One can on many walls see Sumerian writing, which looks like its stamped into the mud-bricks. Sometimes it's hard to see, but it's actually all over the place. Whole walls are covered with cuneiform.

Modern graffiti has also found its way to the graves, usually in form of carrved names (or made with colour pens). The Great Ziggurat itself has far more graffiti, mostly lightly carved into the bricks.

The graves are completely empty. Nothing is left in them, but one can climb into all of them.

The whole site is covered non-stop with broken pottery. One can practically not set a foot anywhere without stepping on broken pottery. It even surpasses Saqqara in Egypt in that matter and is easily on the level of Dendera (which is a much smaller area). They are mostly small pieces, but once in a while there are also large pieces. Some have colours and paintings on them. One can see that some of the 'mountains' of broken pottery are of newer creation, and are debris removed from excavations. Similar 'mountains' can be seen on Egyptian sites, like Giza Pyramids, Saqqara and Dendera.


  1. Tell el-Mukayyar – in Arabic Tell means "mound" and Mukayyar means "built of bitumen". Mukayyar is variously transcribed as Mugheir, Mughair, Moghair, Muqayyar etc.
  2. Queen Puabi is also written Pu-Abi and formerly transcribed as Shub-ab.


Related Internal links of interest

Biblical archaeology

External links

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